As one of the driving forces in any rock or metal track, your guitar mix deserves to sound full and present without overpowering your mix. For many engineers, this involves layering guitars to varying degrees. And while some songs will be served just fine by a double-tracked rhythm guitar part, other sessions end up with dozens of guitar tracks all bouncing off of each other.
With so many guitars flying around these sessions with virtually unlimited track counts, how do you go about getting each of them to sound right (and get the guitar mix as a whole to sound right too)?
First and foremost, you’ll want to clean up any unwanted noise in your guitar tracks before you even think about mixing them. If you’re involved during the tracking session, there are plenty of ways to get in front of these issues early.
Two of my favorites are mutes on the headstock and a noise suppressor in the signal chain. The mute acts as a way to prevent open strings from ringing out as you play your rhythm parts and the noise suppressor catches any low-level hum or fretting noise when the guitarist isn’t playing.
You won’t always be in the tracking sessions as a mixer, but when you’re playing the role of recording engineer too, there’s plenty you can do on the front end to get rid of some headaches later on.
Speaking of front end fixes – you’d be amazed just how many mix issues are the results of guitars with improper setups. Not only is keeping your guitar in tune essential throughout your sessions, but a good setup ensures an even tuning across the entire fretboard. And for those that are thinking about changing tunings mid-session… think again.
A guitar should be set up for a specific tuning for the best possible results and while you might not hear an issue going from Standard to Drop D, you’ll certainly start finding intonation problems when dropping the whole guitar by a whole step or more. To combat this issue, having guitars on hand with a variety of tunings can help. Otherwise, anyone with a bit of a guitar tech background can spend a couple extra minutes tweaking the intonation between takes.
If you end up with a track that’s been recorded with intonation issues, don’t lose hope! Modern tuning software like Melodyne makes spot treatment a breeze. So while you might not want to tune a guitar note-by-note, you can pitch correct the worst offenders while leaving the rest of the track unchanged.
The Wrong Amp
Another major pet peeve for mixers actually comes from the amps that are used on tracking sessions. One engineer's creative choices might not match another’s and when this disconnect occurs between a recording engineer and mixer, the mixer can feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick.
Rather than trying to make massive EQ adjustments to fit a square peg in a round hole, many mixers today choose to work with DI tracks. When a clean DI can be provided alongside the source material, they’ve got an easy way out of the engineer’s creative decisions. Simply reamping the guitar part through their own amp collection or virtual guitar rig gives them far more control than they’d have otherwise.
A Lack of Presence
When your guitar sounds great on its own but fails to cut through the mix, that’s a pretty difficult challenge to overcome. Changing up your EQ can drastically alter the tone of the guitar and because of how heavily compressed guitars are naturally when using overdrive or distortion, the impact of using a compressor is negligible at best.
Instead, mixers should consider using peak clipping or transient shaping to get their guitars to really pop. Both processors focus on the peaks of your signal, with the peak clipper in particular adding bite to your guitar just as it would the attack of your snare drum.
Likewise, transient shaping can really help mold the pick attack of your guitar in a way that brings the track further forward in the mix without affecting the majority of your amp tone.
With either option, you should be prepared to use them in parallel, which allows you to crank up the settings while retaining all of the natural characteristics of the unprocessed tracks in your mix.
Perfecting Your Process
If these guitar issues are plaguing your mixes, there’s no shame in going back to the drawing board to find the right process for your songs. Toneforge Bootcamp is an incredibly detailed look at the process of taking guitars from input to final mix.
You’ll learn how to tone match to any guitar you hear, identify and treat other common mix issues as they present themselves, and deliver some of the fullest, heaviest guitar mixes imaginable to your clients.